Couple’s work on Victorian home in Latah revives local history
There aren’t many reasons to stop in the town of Latah, about an hour’s drive south of Spokane Valley, except perhaps to enjoy the view of Palouse wheatfields. One of the best such views is from a tall Victorian home that sits on a hill just above the grain elevators.
Built in 1886, just a few years before the town of Latah incorporated, the Ham-McEachern House was the home of William McEachern, a banker of Scottish descent who successfully maneuvered the local bank through the Great Depression.
About 12 years ago, Larry and Lisa La Bolle bought the house from McEachern’s descendants and set to work on a restoration and renovation project that’s kept them busy ever since.
“When we first saw the house it was all painted white,” said Larry La Bolle. “We spotted it on our drives around here – and then one day it was for sale.”
For years, they spent summers and weekends at the house in Latah, while they lived and worked in Boise and Spokane. Larry La Bolle is the federal and regional affairs director at Avista, and his interest in history has earned him the unofficial title as Avista’s history guru.
Now that they are empty-nesters, they live full time in the old house.
Step inside the home and it seems not much has changed since the late 1800s. It’s tastefully decorated with period-appropriate antiques, couches, chairs and a big, heavy dining room set. Light fixtures with colored glass globes hang from the ceiling and walls, and the windows are covered with drapes and stained glass panels.
“It is a little dark in here,” said Larry La Bolle, while giving a tour Aug. 13, “but that’s what the homes were like in the Victorian era.”
Almost every square inch of wall is covered in paintings or century-old photos of people looking ahead with stoic expressions, wearing their Sunday best.
“Some are family,” said Larry La Bolle. “Others we’ve purchased because we like the frame – but then we can’t get ourselves to take them out of the frame.”
A large oil portrait of Edna McEachern, perhaps the home’s most famous inhabitant, hangs in a spot of honor over the steep, open staircase to the first floor.
Lisa La Bolle explained that Edna McEachern was born in the house and later earned one of the first doctoral degrees in music ever awarded in the United States – a rare accomplishment for a woman in 1937.
“She returned to the home later in life and lived here with her sister,” Lisa La Bolle said. “We still have her piano.”
Other than that, few original furnishings remain in the house. The last owner held an estate sale and sold most of what was there.
The home’s running water and bathrooms were added after the older McEachern passed away, but there’s no central heating system. An old cookstove is still in use in the kitchen, which also features a 1950s – modern, for this place – kitchen counter with a sink. The microwave oven and other conveniences are hidden in the pantry, letting the kitchen stand much as it was built.
Considering its age, the house held remarkably few secrets.
Larry La Bolle jokes that the couple was hoping to find a safe full of cash – after all, a banker lived there for many years – but they’ve found nothing of that sort.
“We found an old salt and pepper shaker,” he said, laughing. “I think the builders forgot it here one day after lunch.”
And even in the darkest, most quiet Palouse nights they’ve never heard any ghosts.
“People who have a sense of those things come here and say there’s nothing here,” Lisa La Bolle said. “I think this house was always filled with love.”
The latest restoration project was jacking up the two-story home, then digging a basement and installing a new foundation.
“It was impossible to get the house level,” Larry La Bolle said.
The next big project – one that may take several summers to accomplish – is to remove the original siding, install a vapor barrier and insulation, and reinstall the siding.
“The house is kind of leaky and drafty,” Larry La Bolle said. “And we are thinking about installing a heat pump.”
They’ve both dived into small-town life with gusto. He’s on the town council, and she’s on the board of the Fairfield Museum.
Compared to the bustling town it was in the early half of the 1900s, Latah is very quiet today. The café closed more than 10 years ago, and there’s no longer a grocery store or a gas station. Gordon Lederer was born in Latah and lived there for 82 years before moving to a retirement community in Spokane.
He said it means a lot to a small town when someone undertakes a project like the La Bolles.
“It’s absolutely wonderful that they have done this,” Lederer said. He remembers going to dinner with his parents at the Ham-McEachern House when he was a small child.
“I was a country boy. I’d never seen a salad fork,” he said, laughing. “They told me it was an extra fork in case I wrecked the first one.”
There isn’t much left of the Latah of Lederer’s childhood, and that’s one reason why he’s so impressed with the La Bolles’ work.
“To put that kind of money into restoring a home to what it used to look like is just amazing,” Lederer said. “Everyone should be impressed by that.”
Lisa La Bolle said a few other historic buildings are being restored, including the former White Swan Hotel and an old schoolhouse.
Restoration isn’t for the faint of heart, as expensive surprises lurk beneath floorboards and behind old wallpaper. The La Bolles like to do the work themselves, and they agree they work well together.
“If we didn’t, we’d drive each other crazy,” Lisa La Bolle said. “To do something like this, both parties have to be completely bought into the project.”